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Wednesday30 July 2014

People’s Palaces: The Golden Age of Civic Architecture

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People’s palaces: The Golden Age of Civic Architecture
BBC4
Available on the BBC iplayer until September 20
3/5stars

BBC4’s show on northern England’s Victorian buildings was a missed chance.

In 1852, John Deakin Heaton, secretary of the Leeds Improvement Society, put forward arguments in favour of building an iconic town hall in the city: “If a noble municipal palace that might fairly vie with some of the best town halls of the continent were to be erected in the middle of their hitherto squalid and unbeautiful town,” he orated, “it would become a practical admonition to the populace of the value of beauty and art, and in due course of time men would learn to live up to it.”

Heaton and colleagues beat the frugal functionalists seeking a simple box, and the council, guided by Charles Barry, awarded the design prize to Cuthbert Brodrick. He built a vast Corinthian temple covering a city block, topped with a concave French Renaissance bell tower on stilts.

How did the wealthy 19th century men of northern England’s councils, mill towns and breweries come to believe that architecture could help to alleviate human squalor along with urban ugliness? How far short of that mark did their creations fall? This was a main theme of the first part of Jonathan Foyle’s People’s Palaces: The Golden Age of Civic Architecture.

Foyle explored these questions while on a tour of this and other northern neo-classical Victorian buildings. He took in John Wood’s Palladian Liverpool Town Hall of 1740 and that city’s William Brown Street, modelled on a Roman forum in the 1860s.

As the century and a quarter unfurled – straddling the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act – Foyle showed how people began to storm the temples: Liverpool’s 1797 Athenaeum was a subscriber-supported lending library for gentlemen; Barry’s 1827 Royal Manchester Institution for the promotion of Literature, Science & the Arts was a didactic, improving institution for blue-collar workers. Just what the popular majority had to give up to gain access – to the building, to society – was not explored here.

Foyle found architecture wanting: “It couldn’t put bread in the mouths of the poor; couldn’t heal the sick or provide a cure for cholera.”

How could Liverpool evoke (neo)classical greatness when life expectancy was just 20, and half of children died before the age of 10, he asked. Was the thought that a dose of art and religion under a cornice could heal social ills a delusion, a denial or a deception? Relevant questions to raise.

But although I learned about the people who bankrolled and built these behemoths, I yearned for more of the insight that a great arts documentary can bequeath.

Hushed reverence
The inclusion of so much well-trodden social history left room for Foyle merely to touch upon similarly basic architectural stuff. His close readings sometimes fell flat: a mention of egg and dart moulding or Greek key here, the classical orders there, a dash of grand tour grounding. A tone of hushed reverence was about all the interior of St George’s Hall was treated to beyond a discussion of its function as concert hall and law courts.

There could have been more about the polychromatic treatment that set Victorian buildings apart from others, more on the adaptation of classical building types and… well, whatever it is that Foyle, who is chief executive of the World Monuments Fund, knows and would surely impart to an audience if the BBC – or he – trusted it to be fully interested and engaged in buildings as buildings.

It seems a shame that, having had the confidence to select Foyle the expert above a TV face, someone apparently felt it necessary to dilute his knowledge of the palaces with quite so much about the people, for which he relied upon interviews with historians.

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